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James Thomas Rapier

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1873 - March 3, 1875
Preceded by Charles Waldron Buckley
Succeeded by Jeremiah Norman Williams

Born November 13, 1837
Florence, Alabama
Died May 31, 1883
Montgomery, Alabama
Political party Republican

James Thomas Rapier (November 13, 1837 – May 31, 1883) was a United States Representative from 1873 until 1875. He was one of Alabama's three black congressmen during Reconstruction.

He was born a free African American in Florence, Alabama to John H. Rapier, a prosperous local barber. James T. Rapier grew up in Nashville, Tennessee where he was reared by his grandmother, a slave clothes cleaner. In 1856 he traveled to Canada. There he first settled in Buxton, Ontario, a utopian community set up by slaves who had fled to Canada via the underground railroad. His uncle had property there, and Rapier attended the Buxton Mission School. He then attended college at Montreal College, studied law, and was admitted to the bar.

He returned to Tennessee in 1865, where he was a cotton planter and an advocate for black voting rights. In 1866 he moved to Alabama, where he continued to plant cotton and was a delegate to the 1867 state constitutional convention.

He ran for Alabama Secretary of State and lost in 1870. He was elected to the Forty-third United States Congress. While in Congress, he proposed the creation of a land bureau to give Western lands to freedmen. He also proposed $5 million for Southern schools.

He lost his re-election campaign in 1874, and became a collector for the Internal Revenue Service. He campaigned against the conservative Democratic Party's Redeemer government in Alabama. He died in Montgomery, Alabama on May 31, 1883.

In his presidential address [1] in 1979 to the American Historical Association historian John Hope Franklin pointed to ways in which one of the most prominent of the twentieth century Dunning School historians, Walter L. Fleming, wrote about Rapier. Franklin observed that Fleming's viewpoint, which was hostile to civil rights and voting rights for African Americans paved the way for the introduction of factual error into the histories he wrote. Franklin cited by example Fleming's references to Rapier's life in the history Fleming wrote of Alabama.

Franklin said:

Writing in 1905 Walter L. Fleming referred to James T. Rapier, a Negro member of the Alabama constitutional convention of 1867, as "Rapier of Canada." He then quoted Rapier as saying that the manner in which "colored gentlemen and ladies were treated in America was beyond his comprehension."[Fleming, Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama] In a footnote to his address, Franklin added: "Fleming knew better, for in another place—deep in a footnote (p. 519)—he asserted that Rapier was from Lauderdale, "educated in Canada"."

Franklin explained:

Born in Alabama in 1837, Rapier, like many of his white contemporaries, went North for an education. The difference was that instead of stopping in the northern part of the United States, as, for example, (the pro-slavery advocate) William L. Yancey did, Rapier went on to Canada. Rapier's contemporaries did not regard him as a Canadian; and, if some were not precisely clear about where he was born (as was the Alabama State Journal, which referred to his birthplace as Montgomery rather than Florence), they did not misplace him altogether. [Loren Schweninger, James T. Rapier and Reconstruction (Chicago, 1978), xvii, 15.]

Franklin asserted: "In 1905 Fleming made Rapier a Canadian because it suited his purposes to have a bold, aggressive, 'impertinent' Negro in Alabama Reconstruction come from some non-Southern, contaminating environment like Canada. But it did not suit his purposes to call Yancey, who was a graduate of Williams College, a 'Massachusetts Man.' Fleming described Yancey (a white Confederate) as, simply, the 'leader of the States Rights men.'" [Fleming, Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, p. 12.] For a detailed account and comparison of Yancey and other white Southerners who went North to secure an education, see Franklin's book, A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (Baton Rouge, 1976), pp. 45–80.

Franklin is critical of Fleming for falsely stating that Rapier, and others, were "carpetbaggers." Franklin said, "...Fleming, should have been able to see that some of the people that Fleming called carpetbaggers had lived in Alabama for years and were, therefore, entitled to at least as much presumption of assimilation in moving from some other state to Alabama decades before the war as the Irish were in moving from their native land to some community in the United States. ...Whether they had lived in Alabama for decades before the Civil War or had settled there after the war, these "carpetbaggers" were apparently not to be regarded as models for Northern investors or settlers in the early years of the twentieth century. Twentieth-century investors from the North were welcome provided they accepted the established arrangements in race relations and the like. Fleming served his Alabama friends well by ridiculing carpetbaggers, even if in the process he had to distort and misrepresent."[2]


  • Foner, Eric, Freedom's Lawmakers, (LSU Press: 1996) second edition. ISBN 0-8071-2082-0
  • Rabinowitz, Howard N. editor. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (University of Illinois Press: 1982) ISBN 0-252-00929-0. Profiles Rapier; examines how Southern Black leaders functioned during Reconstruction and within the Republican Party.
  • Loren Schweninger, James T. Rapier and Reconstruction (Chicago, 1978), xvii, 15.

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